INDEX 2

PLEASE, AFTER YOU
I was born stupidly polite, and nurture has lacquered onto my nature a high-gloss obsequiousness. (Poke me and I apologise.) It may be every man for himself out there, but I'll hold the door open for the man behind me. Trouble is, I've a thin skin, which is such little protection against thickness. (Thank me for holding the door for you, clown.) It's an ugly thing, really.

It's a wonder I've cycled thousands of London miles; haven't, indeed, suffered apoplexy to my senses and sensibilities at my first traffic light. Because I may be wearing a helmet, but they're all in armour.

For example, I never had doors opened for me until I became a cyclist... Surely one component of rudeness is being unobservant.

Another is being, oh, aggressively observant. Take car horns. Using a horn is like running for a political office. Anybody who actually wants to, habitually needs to, shouldn't be allowed near one. A horn should be packaged like a fire alarm: break glass only in case of emergency. Rather than a safety tool it's often a crowbar to the reflexes of the cyclist finely tuned to his or her environment. Some of us are trying to balance out here.

A horn says one thing, and says that badly: Hey!!!

"Yes?" you wonder. "What can I do for you today? Move out of your way? Go faster? Disappear? What, exactly?"

A misused horn has lordly pretensions to establishing right-of-way. Its only saving grace is that it helps to identify the closest hothead with some precision.

I'm so horn-averse I don't even use my bicycle bell, don't even know why I installed it. When pedestrians -- or civilians, as I tend to think of them -- wander into the road I simply slow down, perhaps remembering my origins.* Before I had wheels I, too, walked.

A pedestrian crossing is a lovely would-be equaliser between civilian and driver. Traffic lights are vacantly authoritarian and rather tedious but crossings invite something approaching respect in a driver. Sometimes they even stop, or at least apply their brakes.

Civilians often wave a perplexing but touching little 'Thank you' to drivers for giving them leave to cross the street. But watch closely if a cyclist and driver stop at a zebra crossing at the same time: note how the civilian salutes the driver and ignores you. You, who are arguably a much closer relative to him, and with whom his sympathies should properly reside. You, sans accelerator, the horse of your own horsepower. You, huffing and puffing, are invisible. The wave may be a forgivable example of misplaced courtesy, but let it be dispensed with some justice.

It would be unfair, of course, to conclude this minor catalogue of offences without mentioning cyclists themselves: from the courier who goes colour-blind at intersections, to the pavement rider who forgets that he can appear as menacing to civilians as cars are to him, to the weekender who seeks martyrdom by riding at night without lights, almost flaunting his invisibility.

As cyclists we assume a mantle of some small grace. We're endeavouring not to be part of the problem, and find indifference or blanket hostility mystifying. However, the sins are all out of proportion to the sinners.

A final admission: I'm also a (mildly self-hating) driver. Occasionally my needs conspire to put me behind a wheel rather than behind handlebars. The car is a wonderful, terrible invention which has stranded us on insular metal islands. Adrift, we have little need for politeness, just petrol.

Cycling Today, June 1998

* admittedly, pedestrians might prefer a bicycle bell to nothing at all. It doesn't sound nearly as unpleasant as a horn. Speaking of which, I'm aware that continental drivers often toot a little warning when approaching cyclists, and certainly no offense is intended. It's all a matter of what you're used to.